A traditional Tibetan dance makes moves through the ages

Despite being a veteran performer of the traditional Xianzi dance, 58-year-old Tashi Wangdu had never until recently staged a performance in front of a big audience.

Xianzi is a kind of folk art that combines song, dance and string music in the Tibet autonomous region that originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

As the first stop in Tibet along the ancient Tea Horse Road, Markham county in the city of Chamdo boasts rich and colorful folk culture due to its unique geographical features and profound cultural heritage.

It was here where Tashi Wangdu joined some 3,000 other Xianzi dancers-men and women, young and old.

Dressed in traditional Tibetan attire, they performed with sheer delight on the "stage"-a large tract of grassland. They change formations from time to time, sometimes gathering in the center, sometimes spreading out and sometimes holding hands in circles.

"In the Tibetan language, Markham refers to a place of goodness and kindness," says Tashi Wangdu, adding that, since childhood, he and his family would find an open space to light a campfire and dance when celebrating holidays.

Tashi Wangdu learned Xianzi from his father and brother when he was 5 and now teaches his grandson when he has time.

The veteran dancer arrived at the grassland stage a day early to prepare. On performance day, he wore a brand-new Tibetan costume and put his long hair in a ponytail.

Their performance lasted more than half an hour. Beads of sweat dotted Tashi Wangdu's forehead, and he wiped them away with smile lines appearing in the outer corners of his eyes.

"I've been doing Xianzi for decades, but this is the first time I've ever danced with so many people," he says.

"Our traditional culture has made a comeback."

Changdren, deputy director of the county's cultural bureau, says Xianzi is the pearl in the resplendent crown of art in Markham.

"There is a folk belief that Xianzi brings happiness that never ends," says Changdren, noting that it can be performed anywhere and the number of dancers does not matter.

"Sometimes, people in Markham would dance all day, passing the folk art on to younger generations."

The State Council listed Xianzi as a form of national-level intangible cultural heritage in 2006.

To preserve the precious tradition, folk artists in Markham have been teaching and performing it in schools. The dance has also been adapted to gymnastic exercises in 30 primary and secondary schools in the county.

Several competitions have been held over the past few years, Changdren says.

"We're expecting more talented dance producers and performers to improve the creativity and performing skills of Xianzi, thus promoting tourism and our excellent Tibetan culture," he says.